The tragic real-life story of Ringo Starr

After playing in a few Liverpool area rock bands, Richard Starkey — aka Ringo Starr — joined another group and replaced a drummer named Pete Best ... and then became one of the most famous and successful musicians ever. For that band was the Beatles, obviously, which shaped rock n' roll for decades to come, thanks in part to Starr sitting behind the kit and keeping the beat with his sharp, aggressive style of play. 

While the Fab Four (Ringo was "the funny one") were a going concern for less than a decade, the goodwill and fortune he acquired as a Beatle propelled him through life, making him beloved and welcomed wherever he went. Sadly, his success and status as the guy talented enough to sing "Yellow Submarine" and get blisters on his fingers during "Helter Skelter" didn't insulate him from the upsetting, depressing, and unseemly side of life. Starr seems to have suffered more than his fair share of bad luck and darkness. Here are some of the more tragic events in the life of Ringo Starr.

Ringo Starr was raised in a rough neighborhood

The Beatles all famously hailed from Liverpool, one of England's largest cities and home to large populations of regular people in the working and middle classes. But while John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison all grew up in homes that weren't wealthy but secure, Starr's upbringing was a bit more economically unstable. 

"He was not a barefoot, ragged child," Starr's childhood neighbor Marie Maguire Crawford said in Bob Spitz' The Beatles: A Biography, "but like all of the families who lived in the Dingle, he was part of an ongoing struggle to survive." The Dingle was an especially depressed neighborhood, full of tiny, decrepit homes with poor ventilation where the only place for kids to play was in a local park, where all the coal smoke from area chimneys hung thick in the air. Those circumstances were made all the more trying by Starr's father abandoning the family when Ringo was only three years old.

He was hospitalized for a year

Any serious medical emergency requiring a hospital stay of any length is concerning, but it seems worse when it happens to a child. And a major health calamity happened to Ringo Starr when he was just six years old. In 1947, his appendix ruptured, and it developed into an internal infection called peritonitis, an inflammation of a tissue membrane that covers organs. Starr's in-hospital recovery stretched on for months. "I was in a year because six months in, I was getting rather well. And I got excited and I fell out of bed," he told Fresh Air, "and ripped open all these stitches in my stomach." That required an emergency surgery and then an additional six months of recovery time. Starr was laid up in a Liverpool children's hospital for so long that he missed a full year of school. When he got out, he caught up to his classmates with the aid of a tutor.

He suffered from tuberculosis

Just a few years after he spent a year in a hospital and had to work his way back up to his peers in school, Starr got waylaid by health issues yet again, and this time it was for twice as long. At the age of 13, Starr was diagnosed with one of the most frightening and potentially deadly diseases on the planet at the time — tuberculosis, a bacteria-driven condition that attacks the lungs. Catching that infectious disease was a result of "the area [he] Iived in," Starr told Fresh Air. "It was like, you know, six or seven cases in every street where people were just in the living room dying of TB because they didn't have a cure, of course." 

Doctors sent Starr to a "greenhouse in the country," a sanitarium for children where he could "breathe some decent air for a change" and receive treatments of a new miracle cure for TB called streptomycin. Starr spent around two years recovering from tuberculosis, and he missed so much school that he ultimately never returned.

Ringo missed out on part of Beatlemania

In 1964, "Beatlemania" hit big. The group's performances on The Ed Sullivan Show set viewership records, five Beatles songs occupied the top five slots on the Billboard Hot 100, and the band embarked on a world tour to play live in front of throngs of fans who screamed so loud they couldn't even hear the music. But during a London photoshoot in June 1964, Starr once again fell seriously ill. Taken to a hospital, he was diagnosed with both tonsillitis and pharyngitis (a severely sore throat) and was ordered by doctors to not get out of bed. 

That was kind of a problem, as the Beatles' first major world tour kicked off in Denmark a day later. Starr had no choice but to literally lay back and let the band replace him with producer George Martin's first suggestion, a session drummer named Jimmie Nicol. Starr recovered after ten days, missing tour stops in Australia and Asia, and joined the band. It was a relief for the drummer. "They'd taken Jimmie Nicol, and I thought they didn't love me anymore," Starr said in The Beatles Anthology (via The Beatles Encyclopedia). "All that stuff went through my head."

The other Beatles were rude to him

Throughout the history of the Beatles, there's a through-line of disrespect for Ringo Starr. He was only allowed to sing lead on 11 songs and write two unassisted, and he didn't even get to play on one of the group's earliest and biggest hits. Producer George Martin didn't like the drumming Starr turned in for "Love Me Do." So he brought in a session drummer named Andy White to play drums on "Love Me Do" and the B-side "P.S. I Love You," demoting Starr to tambourine and maracas on each song, respectively. 

Toward the end of the 1960s, the band life of the Beatles was famously contentious. It got so bad in 1968 for Ringo Starr that he briefly left the band in the middle of recording The Beatles (also known as "The White Album"). "I felt I wasn't playing great, and I also felt that the other three were really happy, and I was an outsider," Starr said in The Beatles Anthology (via Beatles Bible). While Starr took his family on a vacation to Sardinia, the other Beatles, apparently unfazed, recorded without him, taking bits and pieces of work he'd previously recorded and some new drum work by Paul McCartney to cobble together the rhythmic backing track for "Back in the U.S.S.R." When Starr returned, his bandmates at least welcomed him back by covering his drum kit in flowers.

Ringo Starr's solo career faltered fast

After the Beatles split up in 1970, all four members enjoyed solo success, even Ringo Starr, who was rarely featured on Beatles songs. After a false start with the flop "Beaucoups of Blues," his next eight singles (including #1 hits "Photograph" and "You're Sixteen") all hit the top ten in the U.S. The albums Ringo and Goodnight Vienna went platinum and gold, respectively, but then the public seemingly grew tired of the former Beatles drummer. 

In 1976 — a year in which Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs" hit #1 — Starr's Ringo's Rotogravure stalled at #28 on the album chart, and singles "A Dose of Rock 'n' Roll" and "Hey! Baby!" tanked, too. His 1977 and 1978 records Ringo the 4th and Bad Boy straight-up flopped, reaching #162 and #129 on the Billboard album chart, respectively. After leaving his label over a dispute, it took Starr three years to record and release more music, with 1981's Stop and Smell the Roses. He enjoyed a modest comeback with the #38 hit "Wrack My Brain," a song written by former bandmate George Harrison. But Stop and Smell the Roses sold so poorly that RCA Records dropped Starr. That's right. After reaching new heights as a member of the Beatles, Starr was left without a recording contract.

He had a serious problem with alcohol

The breakup of the Beatles in 1970 left Starr feeling "absolutely lost," as he told People, and stress over an unsteady solo career in the years after left him with a "serious drinking problem" that only intensified. "It got progressively worse, and the blackouts got worse, and I didn't know where I'd been, what I'd done." He doesn't even remember some career highlights. "I've got photographs of me playing all over the world but I've absolutely no memory of it. I played Washington with the Beach Boys — or so they tell me," Starr told the VC Reporter. "But there's only a photo to prove it." 

In 1989, he went to court to stop the release of an album he'd recorded during an especially booze-heavy period, testifying that he was drinking as many as 16 bottles of wine each day. Starr realized he had a problem in the early '80s, but he didn't seek help for years because he felt like he was stuck, professionally. "I don't know how you do anything if you're not drunk," he recalled feeling to Rolling Stone, adding, "I couldn't play sober, but I also couldn't play as a drunk." He credits forming his Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band and going on a tour in 1989 as one of the main factors that helped him kick alcohol for good.

Ringo got so drunk his staff thought he killed his wife

Not only did addiction ensnare Ringo Starr, he says it also grabbed his second wife, actress Barbara Bach. "She fell into the trap because of me," he told People. Starr added that Bach would "try and straighten us out" on occasion, but that they'd fall back into old habits. "We used to go on long plane journeys, rent huge villas, stock up the bars, hide, and get deranged," Starr and Bach wrote in the foreword to Getting Sober...And Loving It (via The Independent), a book about alcoholism by former Beatles press officer Derek Taylor. As Bach's daughter, Francesca Gregorini, told The Mail on Sunday (via a Beatles fan site), when she lived with her mother and the former Beatles, "it was their drugs heyday," and they were content to just "stay at home, drink, do drugs, and just hide away."

Such a lifestyle may have hit its nadir in late 1988. "I came to one Friday afternoon and was told by the staff that I'd trashed the house so badly they thought there had been burglars, and I'd trashed Barbara so badly they thought she was dead," Starr is quoted as saying in Andrew Grant Jackson's Beatles biography Still the Greatest. In October 1988, Starr and Bach jointly checked into a rehab facility in Tucson, Arizona.

His friend and bandmate was murdered

In December 1980, a troubled fan named Mark David Chapman shot and killed former Beatles frontman John Lennon outside of his New York City apartment building, a sad and tragic event that disturbed millions of fans. If it certainly upset all the people who grew up listening to the Beatles, it was devastating to somebody who was in the Beatles with Lennon. 

"I was in the Bahamas," Starr told Rolling Stone about the night he heard about the death of his friend. "I was getting a phone call from my stepkids in L.A., saying, 'Something's happened to John.' And then they called and said, 'John's dead.' And I didn't know what to do." Immediately, Starr hopped on a plane to New York and went to the apartment Lennon shared with his wife, Yoko Ono, and their young son, Sean. Starr hung out for a while, offering comfort and support, playing with Sean and keeping him occupied to take his mind off the tragedy. Despite his brave face, there's no doubt that the tragedy absolutely wrecked Starr.

His first wife died after a bout with leukemia

Ringo Starr met his first wife, the former Maureen Cox, at the Cavern Club, the venue where the Beatles cut their teeth. "Here I was a silly 16-year-old hairdresser dating the most popular drummer in Liverpool," Cox told Le Chroniqueur (via The Daily Beatle) in 1988. The pair wed in 1965, had three children together, and the marriage weathered the storm of worldwide fame and attention — but just barely and not for the long haul. Cox had a brief affair with Starr's Beatle cohort George Harrison, and after they grew apart in the mid-'70s, Starr struck up a relationship with model Nancy Lee Andrews, with a divorce finalized in 1975. According to John Lennon's first wife, Cynthia, Cox was so devastated that she attempted to take her own life by running a motorcycle into a wall. She survived, but she endured a lengthy cosmetic surgery to correct her facial injuries.

Starr and Cox both remarried — he to actress Barbara Bach, she to Hard Rock Café founder Isaac Tigrett — but they reportedly remained cordial. They stayed so friendly, in fact, that Starr was with his former wife when she passed away in December 1994. Admitted to the Fred Hutchinson Research Center in Seattle the previous October, Cox underwent a bone marrow transplant from her and Starr's son, Zak Starkey, that was intended to treat leukemia. Sadly, the procedure didn't completely improve her health, and she died from complications of the surgery at age 47.

Ringo Starr's daughter fought off brain tumors

During 1970 — the same year of the momentous Beatles split — Ringo Starr at least had something to celebrate in his personal life: the birth of his first daughter (and third child overall), Lee Starkey. While she stayed out of the spotlight for decades — as opposed to more famous Beatles offspring like fashion designer Stella McCartney and '80s pop sensation Julian Lennon — Starkey operated a retro boutique but made headlines in the fall of 1995 for a very troubling matter. 

After collapsing and a hospitalization in London, Starkey was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After having fluid drained from her skull, she was transferred to Brigham and Woman's Hospital in Boston, where neurosurgeon Dr. Peter Black performed an experimental four-hour operation on Starkey. The tumor — of an eminently curable kind called ependymoma — was removed entirely, and Starkey was quickly discharged. The patient's father was reportedly by his daughter's bedside for the ordeal, and he stayed with her in Boston for six weeks after, when Starkey underwent eight-minute radiation treatments every day. Concerningly, in 2001, according to the Boston Herald (via Google Groups), the tumor returned, and Starkey had to endure more medical treatments.